Born into a musical family on 27 August 1909, Willis Lester Young came from Wilkinson County, Mississippi; Young, his sister Irma and brother Lee, were predominantly raised by his mother, a teacher, in Algiers, across the river from New Orleans. His father was a multi-instrumentalist who favoured trumpet, taught piano to a youthful Ben Webster. Many relatives in the extended family played in a band; his mother played baritone saxophone, Lee played soprano saxophone, Irma played C tenor saxophone; the band of cousins, aunts and uncles added up to ten saxophonists in total.
Despite being taught by his father, Young avoided learning to read music, instead playing by ear, “My father got me an alto out of the pawnshop and I just picked it up and started playing it, that's the way that went.” Frustrated, his father threw him out the family band for a while. According to Lester, “I went away and learned how to read the music. And, I came back in the band and played this music.”
Young's parents divorced when he was ten years old, after which his father sent his sister to abduct the children while their mother was out, after which they were taken on the road with the band; the children did not see their mother for years. Young played for his father from 1919 first on drums, taking up the alto saxophone when he was 13 years old. He left the band when he was seventeen, after refusing to tour the South.
Finding work with other touring outfits, Young changed first to baritone saxophone then tenor saxophone in 1928, while with Art Bronson’s 'Bostonians'. He joined a string of bands ending up in Walter Page's 'Blue Devils' and their spin off, 'Thirteen Original Blue Devils'. After touring with Clarence Love and King Oliver in 1933, Young moved to Kansas City to play with the Bennie Moten-George E. Lee band.
Young sat in with the visiting Fletcher Henderson band at the Cherry Blossom, to substitute for their star soloist Coleman Hawkins who was absent; when Hawkins went to tour Europe, Young joined Henderson's band. He was chided by his band mates for not sounding like Hawkins and soon quit to join Andy Kirk's band. Next, Young joined Count Basie, making his recording debut in 1936, on 'Shoe Shine Boy', with 'Jones-Smith Incorporated', a quintet formed from Basie’s Orchestra. A few months later he played on his first record with Billie Holiday in 1937 as part of Teddy Wilson’s Orchestra. Young's unique, cool style, intentionally playing high in the register on the tenor, set him apart from the majority of other saxophonists who had modeled themselves on Hawkins. Critic Benny Green described the difference, "Where Hawkins is profuse, Lester is pithy; where Hawkins is passionate, Lester is reflective."
Young's style gave rise to the Charlie Parker lineage and was fundamental to the development of Bop and Cool jazz; he also had a flair for fashion wearing double-breasted suits and pork-pie hats, Young's whole image wreaked of cool.
After dodging the draft, Young was tracked down in 1944 by an FBI man posing as a jazz fan. He was forced to join the army, despite his unsuitability as a chronic alcoholic, and a heavy marijuana user. Young and Billie Holiday smoked copiously whilst recording; he was also syphilitic, despite being monogamous and faithful to his wife. Norman Granz appealed to the draft board on Young’s behalf, but to no avail. Young was stationed in Alabama where racism made army life a misery. When pills were found in his possession, a court-martial ordered him to serve a year of hard labor at Fort Gordon in Georgia. When Young was released, it was his friend Norman Granz who organised a recording date in Los Angeles, as well as paying for Young's ticket to California.
Young returned to a reinvented jazz scene, beginning to bloom from seeds he had sown. He was able to adapt to the new bebop movement and found fame on Jazz at the Philharmonic tours, many of his performances are captured on the JATP recordings, including some in 1946 with Billie Holliday. Young, to all intent and purposes appeared to be very successful during this period. His popularity and income grew steadily until he was earning about $50,000 per year.
His first session for Granz was in 1946 as The Lester Young Buddy Rich Trio, the third member being Nat King Cole. In 1950 he worked as a quartet with Hank Jones, Ray Brown and Buddy Rich and produced sides that were collected together to create the excellent, Pres on Norgran and later Verve. In 1952 he recorded with the Oscar Peterson quartet and this is another beautiful record.
However, Young found the popularisation of his style a double-edged sword. He was so popular that many copied his style and with all these sound-alikes, he was beginning to feel obsolete. Add to this the impact of his abuse whilst serving in the army, which he described as, “a nightmare, man, one mad nightmare”, was clearly being expressed through his playing which became far more melancholic than mellow. Coupled with which his alcohol abuse continued to escalate.
He ended his days in New York, what would nowadays be diagnosed as being clinically depressed, sitting by his window in the Alvin Hotel at 52nd Street and Broadway, watching the musicians arriving at Birdland opposite. He viewed Western movies, and listened to Frank Sinatra records, sat in his chair, drinking gin. Gil Evans visited him, “He had a great big room at the Alvin, and when I'd go to see him, I'd find full plates of food everywhere. That had been brought by friends, but he wouldn't eat. He just drank … One of the reasons his drinking got so out of hand was his teeth. They were in terrible shape, and he was in constant pain.”
Young was named the greatest tenor saxophonist ever in a Leonard Feather poll from 1956, and was posthumously elected to the Down Beat Hall of Fame in 1959. Many of our phrases in daily use have been attributed to him; famous for dubbing Billy Holiday “Lady Day”, and she for calling him the “President”, Young likely also introduced, “you dig” (you understand) and "bread” (money).
A day after returning from a one-month engagement in Paris, Young died from a heart attack brought on by severe internal bleeding arising from cirrhosis of the liver, that is, he had essentially drunk himself to death. Eleven days before he passed away he recorded what became Lester Young in Paris; not his best playing by a long way, but fascinating that a man in his physical condition could ever perform. Norman Granz took out a full-page ad in Down Beat: a photo of Young under which was the simple dedication, “We'll all miss you, Lester”.
Words: Richard Havers
Although serious fans and collectors will have little use for the disc, Ultimate Lester Young is a solid collection of 12 highlights from the saxophonist's Verve recordings as selected by Wayne Shorter. For the curious neophyte, the disc offers a good overview of Young's time at the label, featuring the saxophonist in a variety of different settings, including combos with Harry "Sweets" Edison, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, Nat King Cole, Roy Eldridge, and Count Basie. Certainly, the disc should be thought of as an introduction, not the final word, but on that level it works very well. Among the featured numbers are "Pennies from Heaven" and "Lester Leaps Again."
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
All too often, jazz critics have promoted the myth that Lester Young's playing went way downhill after World War II -- that the seminal tenor man was so emotionally wounded by the racism he suffered in the military in 1944-1945 that he could no longer play as well as he had in the '30s and early '40s. To be sure, Young went through hell in the military, and his painful experiences took their toll in the form of alcohol abuse, severe depression, and various health problems. But despite Young's mental decline, he was still a fantastic soloist. This eight-CD set, which gathers most of the studio recordings that he made for Norman Granz's Clef, Norgran, and Verve labels from 1946-1959, underscores the fact that much of his postwar output was superb. At its worst, this collection is at least decent, but the Pres truly excels on sessions with Nat "King" Cole and Buddy Rich in 1946, Oscar Peterson and Barney Kessel in 1952, Roy Eldridge and Teddy Wilson in 1956, and Harry "Sweets" Edison in 1957. Disc 8 contains two recorded interviews with the saxman -- one conducted by Chris Albertson in 1958 for WCAU radio in Philadelphia, the other by French jazz enthusiast Francois Postif in Paris on February 6, 1959 (only five or six weeks before Young's death on March 15 of that year). The contrast between the fascinating interviews is striking; in Philly, Young is polite and soft-spoken, whereas in Paris, the effects of the alcohol are hard to miss. Sounding intoxicated and using profanity liberally, Young candidly tells Postif about everything from his experiences with racism to his associations with Billie Holiday and Count Basie. But as much as the set has going for it, The Complete Lester Young Studio Sessions on Verve isn't for novices, casual listeners, or those who are budget-minded (Verve's suggested retail price in the U.S. was $144). Collectors are the ones who will find this CD to be a musical feast.
Words: Alex Henderson
Although it has been written much too often that Lester Young declined rapidly from the mid-'40s on, the truth is that when he was healthy, Young played at his very best during the '50s, adding an emotional intensity to his sound that had not been present during the more carefree days of the '30s. This classic session, a reunion with pianist Teddy Wilson and drummer Jo Jones (bassist Gene Ramey completes the quartet), finds the great tenor in particularly expressive form. His rendition of "Prisoner of Love" is quite haunting, the version of "All of Me" is also memorable, and all of the swing standards (which are joined by his original "Pres Returns") are well worth hearing. This date (which has been reissued on CD) was recorded the day after Young's other classic from his late period, Jazz Giants '56.
Words: Scott Yanow
Defying what has become conventional wisdom, tenor saxophonist Lester Young cut some of his greatest recordings in the 1950s -- that is, when he was reasonably healthy. On this wonderful effort with pianist Oscar Peterson, guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer J.C. Heard, Prez performs definitive versions of "Just You, Just Me" and "Tea for Two," and plays a string of concise but memorable ballad renditions: "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Almost Like Being in Love," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "There Will Never Be Another You," and "I'm Confessin'." This is essential music from a jazz legend. [Some reissues augment the original dozen songs with a version of the good-humored "It Takes Two to Tango," which features Young's only recorded vocals, plus a rather unnecessary false start (on "I Can't Get Started," ironically), along with some studio chatter.]
Words: Scott Yanow
With Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, Lester Young makes up what could be called the Holy Trinity of jazz tenor saxophonists. On this Verve compilation, we get a wonderful overview of Young's post- Count Basie Orchestra output. Selections featured here range from dates recorded in 1943 up through 1956, three years before the musician's death. Young's cool-toned, behind-the-beat phrasing is in evidence on all 15 tracks, from the Latin inflected "In a Little Spanish Town ('Twas on a Night Like This)," through the relaxed swing of "Peg O' My Heart," to the uptempo bounce of "All of Me." This CD sizzles with great jazz performances.
In selecting a little over an hour's worth of excerpts from the eight-CD box set The Complete Lester Young Studio Sessions on Verve for this highlights disc, the compilers have resisted the urge to stick with only a collection of Young's more accomplished early works and included a few examples of his deteriorated, but still moving, later work. They have hedged their bets somewhat, however, by not sequencing things chronologically, so that the album closes with a 1949 recording of the pop song "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" rather than, say, "Waldorf Blues" from 1958. Early or late, Young's playing is readily identifiable, if only for the chances it takes, whether on the up-tempo "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" or the strikingly excessive introductory blowing on the opening phrases of "Love Is Here to Stay." Young's associates on the tracks constitute a who's who of his contemporaries, including Ray Brown, Nat "King" Cole, Hary "Sweets" Edison, Roy Eldridge, Herb Ellis, Hank Jones, Jo Jones, Connie Kay, John Lewis, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, and Teddy Wilson. While it takes more than an hour to get a full sense of Young's work on Verve (hence the box set), this is an intelligently constructed sampler.
Words: William Ruhlmann
One of tenor-saxophonist Lester Young's final studio sessions (he died a year later), this date apparently had a lot of difficulties but the recorded results are excellent. Prez was joined by two great swing trumpeters (Roy Eldridge and Harry "Sweets" Edison) and a fine rhythm section for two standards, two originals and the ballad "Gypsy in My Soul." Young takes rare clarinet solos on two of the selections with his emotional statement on "They Can't Take That Away from Me" being one of the highpoints of his career.
Words: Scott Yanow
This 1997 CD has music from a previously unreleased Town Hall concert. The program is split between the Lester Young sextet and Sarah Vaughan with the two principals only coming together on the final song, "I Cried for You." The recording quality is listenable, if not flawless, and it features the two giants at interesting points in their careers. Tenor great Lester Young sounds excellent on his seven features, but his backup group is sometimes a bit shaky, particularly during uncertain moments on "Just You, Just Me" and "Sunday"; bassist Rodney Richardson does not mesh well with the eccentric pianist Sadik Hakim. The young Roy Haynes is fine, although some of his "bombs" are overrecorded, while trumpeter Shorty McConnell comes across as a second-rate Howard McGhee, sincere but streaky. But the reason to acquire this CD is Sarah Vaughan, who at age 23 was already a marvel; what a voice! Very influenced by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Vaughan mostly lays way behind the beat during her ballad-oriented performances, swirling between notes like a first altoist and often settling on very unlikely (and boppish) notes. She gives the impression that she could do anything with her voice, and some of her flights (particularly on "Don't Blame Me," "I Cover the Waterfront" and "Mean to Me") border on the miraculous.
Words: Scott Yanow
Although it has often been written that cool-toned tenor saxophonist Lester Young's experiences with racism in the military during 1944-1945 so scarred him that he never played at the same musical level as he had previously, the music on this essential two-CD reissue disproves that theory. It is true that his attitude toward life was affected and Young became somewhat self-destructive, but his postwar solos rank with the greatest work of his career. This two-fer, which has four selections from 1942 in which Young is heard in a trio with pianist Nat King Cole and bassist Red Callender and a rare 1945 session headed by singer Helen Humes (including a previously unknown instrumental "Riffin' Without Helen"), is mostly taken up with Young's very enjoyable 1945-1948 small-group dates. Highlights include "D.B. Blues," "Jumpin' with Symphony Sid" (which was a minor hit), "Sunday," and "New Lester Leaps In," among many others. Minor errors aside (trumpeter Snooky Young is left out of the personnel listing for the Humes date and Young's final Aladdin session is from 1948, not 1947), this is a well-conceived and brilliant set filled with exciting performances by one of the true greats of jazz.
Words: Scott Yanow
Lester Young inspired Boppers like Charlie Parker by providing the bridge between the more traditional-sounding titans like Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins and the more modern and cooler sounds of Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz and John Coltrane. This CD features "Prez" with Bill Potts group (presumably circa 1957 in Washington D.C.) in front of a small, polite audience. It is well recorded and has a clean, modern sound for a recording made more than fifty years ago. It is a good introduction for a young saxophinist to Lester Young's playing, and lacks the fat, reedy sound of many of his contemporaries that so often sound dated now.
Words: Professor Wagstaff